Wednesday, 31 December 2014

To a new year

This has been a difficult year for me, and for many of the people I love. I'm not going into details here, because this blog is not about me, but I will say that the weight of it all has been bearing down on me over the last few days. There's fear, and resignation, and misery from everything the news has been bringing us.

But for me, there's also hope, and there's relief. I find - and I know others experience this too - that the end of a calendar year is challenging because everything grinds to a halt. Because nothing is working as normal in many countries - shops are shut, transport is disrupted, businesses are closed - it's hard to find a rhythm, especially for those of us who depend on routine. And for those of us who are waiting for things to happen, it's especially frustrating.

New Year's Eve suffers from the same forced gaiety syndrome that afflicts Christmas. We're expected to have a good time. Many of us will feel pressure to drink, and the commercial machine is grinding away at our self-image, telling us that we need to lose weight, to get fitter, to make more money, to be other than what we are. We find ourselves making grandiose plans to be whatever not-us will find more acceptance in the world.

You are enough, friend. You are loved. You are wanted. All this because of the person you are right now, in this moment. If nothing changes between now and this time next year, I will still be here. Your friends and those who love you will still be here. I hope you will be, too.

You might be full of expectation and hope for the new year. It might be filling you with dread. You might be completely indifferent to it. If a change in the calendar is something that brings you power, I hope you have a pleasant night and that your hopes for a better life are realised. If it's not, this is just another day - albeit one that other people are talking about more than usual - and it's OK for you to treat it as such.

And for those who, like me, find this a comforting thought, remember: everything is about to go back to normal. Normal isn't necessarily good, but we know it. It's something we can work with.

Take care, friends. Be good to yourselves tonight.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Coping with seasonal body-shaming

Greetings, humans, and apologies for this unscheduled hiatus - as is somewhat to be expected, the season has been taking its toll on me a little.

I really wanted there to be a post on navigating the fat hatred that tends to rear its ugly head around this time of year, mostly from "well-meaning" relatives, but I'm not really in a position to write that post, so the lovely Hazel Hare (Tumblr | Twitter ) has kindly stepped in. Enjoy, and show them some love if you like the post. :)


I am fat. I am a fat person. I have very small sections of normal clothing shops dedicated to my size. I am the image of a person walking down the street that news reports use to talk in Very Stern Tones about obesity. The reasons for my fatness are complex and interlinked with mental health, early trauma, and an upbringing where I was constantly berated for any food or exercise choices I made.

As I approach thirty years old I am, finally, feeling positive about my beautiful fat body. (Needless to say, opinions to the contrary will be - aha - roundly ignored.) I am fat, I am beautiful, and I hold onto that feeling as much as possible. Unfortunately, it's not always possible in the midst of winter celebrations.

Winter holidays are a time of year when we are socially allowed and encouraged to eat heartily and often; to eat rich, sugary and fatty foods; to drink and be merry. Unfortunately, it's also the time of year when we typically spend time with our [toxic] relatives. They are the people who remember us when we were much smaller, when we were babies and toddlers and teens, who are often unfamiliar with our adult selves.

Yes, I am bigger than I was when I was seven. You're quite right.

"And weren't you supposed to have a career by now? And why are you still renting?" (Assuming we have made it out of their house in the first place.) "And what's with the clothes and the hair and the partner(s)? Didn't we assign you a different gender at birth? Couldn't you just get more fresh air and cure your various mental and physical illnesses?"

There's a whole plethora of ways they can criticise our lives, our behaviours and our choices. I could probably write a lot about all of the above, but this is about my body and my eating.

Eating is usually a social event around the holidays, with family meals and buffets and leftovers, so eating in front of others ends up being the norm. And while your toxic family members can't change your job, house or partner(s) just by complaining at you at the dinner table, they can express their general disapproval by changing what and how you eat.

I usually have quite a hefty "fuck you!" attitude when it comes to people verbally criticising my food choices, ("Ooh, a moment on the lips-" "Fuck off."), but I am reluctant to swear at my relatives. I can't so easily respond to the patronising or sad looks that people give me as I eat food. I even found myself tempted to defend my eating, to invent gym memberships, to highlight the physical aspects of my job, to fabricate recent weight loss which 'allows' me to now eat the food. Sometimes that's what it takes to deflect them, and that's okay.

I am allowed to eat this food, toxic family member, because I feel suitably embarrassed and ashamed about existing as a fat human being. I have paid my penance.

Fat people, and fat women especially, are supposed to be fighting the fat, beating the bulge, and constantly enacting emotional and physical violence against our bodies until we are not fat any more. We are supposed to be unhappy, restless and filled with a desire to shrink ourselves at all costs. I am supposed to 'be good' by restricting my food and my food choices.

Well. Fuck that.

I exist. I exist as a fat person, as a fat woman, and I am enough. I eat. During the winter holidays I clutch my partner's hand for support, take a few minutes' fresh air, post a snarky tweet or five, and express sympathy with my fat friends when their families treat them the same way mine treat me.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Feeding the needy in London 2014

This post is a round-up of places doing special events for people who are lonely and/or poor on Christmas day. This is specific to London, which is where I live - please feel free to make your own similar post for your local area, or check #freexmaslunch on Twitter for other events.

The Fitzrovia Centre on Cleveland Street (near Goodge St Underground) is hosting an event where the price of entry is a gift for a child.

Cummin Up Caribbean restaurant (branches on Lewisham High Street and New Cross Road) is offering a free Christmas lunch.

Crisis are looking for donations so that they can offer three meals, a shower, a change of clothes, a hair cut and free advice to as many homeless people as possible this Christmas.

Narcotics Anonymous is hosting a free event for its members in Oval, South London.

At the Community Christmas website, you can search using your postcode to find free or low cost Christmas events near you. Many are run by charities or local councils.

The Rotary Club is holding an event for older people living in London Borough of Wandsworth at Battersea Marquee.

Have I missed anything? Comment and let me know! And if you decide to make your own list for your local area, comment and/or tweet me @theviciouspixie.

Black Lives Matter

IMPORTANT: I am white. My thoughts on this are largely irrelevant. If you wish to share this post, please ensure that you also share at least three pieces of writing by black people about Antonio Martin's death.

I debated whether to post this. Halfway Out of the Dark is about support, kindness, warmth. It was not designed to be political. But offering kindness can be a radical act in itself, and I cannot see this happening and fail to speak. Today, I send every ounce of kindness and warmth I have out to the family of Antonio Martin, and to the black communities of the United States.

I will put money on tomorrow's newspapers giving no prominence whatsoever to this image, so I am going to post it here, and I want everyone to take a good, long look at it.

This is the mother of Antonio Martin, yet another black teenager who was shot dead by police in St. Louis last night. Martin was eighteen years old. Police claim that he was drawing a gun, but by now there are plenty of reasons to doubt these assertions.

I cannot begin to imagine the pain the Martin family must be feeling now. I am a white person, and it is not my place to tell black people how they must be feeling right now. So this post is addressed to my fellow white people.

I say this on Twitter all the time, but here it is again, with feeling: our place in this fight as white allies is on the sidelines. We must not raise our voices over those of black people. We must not refocus their pain onto ourselves. We must not redirect images of black suffering to focus on white people. Our task is to listen, to internalise, and to amplify. That is it.

Send condolences if you must. Do not tell black people how they are or should be feeling. Do not presume to know their grief or their fear. We don't. We never will.

Anger is the cousin of fear. Black people have a right to feel angry, and more and more reasons to feel afraid. This is not about us. Do not try to make it about us. Do not police the anger of black people. If you feel hurt by it, sit with that discomfort and take it apart - you will notice, after a while, that the pieces are all tinged with white supremacy.

Do not assume that majority white countries outside the US are free from institutional racism. It has not been that long since Mark Duggan died. Support black people - and other people of colour - by holding the police accountable. Question them. Call out racism where you see it, whether it's from the police or from anybody else. If it's your family, here's another link to that Franchesca Ramsey video.

Hold yourself accountable. Examine yourself carefully for internalised racism. We all have it. I do. You do. Be vigilant. Be self-aware.

If you feel the urge to say any sentence containing the phrase "black on black crime", or to point out instances of black people committing crimes against people of other races, please shut yourself in a darkened room and lie down until the urge passes. There is a time and a place to discuss these things. If you are white, that time and that place is never and nowhere. Do not, under any circumstances, blame Martin for his own death, or his family. You cannot say this is reasonable force. Regardless of whether he was armed or not, there was no reason for police to shoot to kill.

If you are currently serving in the police force, please examine that choice very carefully and ask yourself whether you want to play a part in upholding a racist, authoritarian, and increasingly abusive institution. Ask yourself whether the police force you are part of is the same one you thought you were joining. And if you decide to stay, raise your voice in solidarity with your black and PoC comrades.

My heart goes out to the family of Antonio Martin, and to the black parents who are clutching their children ever tighter this Christmas, and to the black boys and young men who will be keeping their heads lower and looking over their shoulders in case they are next. I am so, so sorry. As a part of the institution that's keeping you down, I vow to do my utmost to help you dismantle it. I will follow your lead.

At the time of posting, I haven't found any blogs or articles by black writers about this specific incident, so I will come back and add them (and feel free to comment with links). In the meantime, I'll link to some black writers:
Jay Smooth (videos), DJ and video journalist.
Franchesca Ramsey (videos), comedian and video journalist. In particular, this video about being a white ally is relevant to this post.
Colorlines (news site) - their post on the shooting of Antonio Martin can be found here.
Black Girl Dangerous (blog)
Ebony (online magazine)
Mikki Kendall (Twitter), novelist and journalist.
Zahira Kelly (Twitter / Tumblr / website), writer and artist.
Jamilah Lemieux (Twitter), journalist.
Jude Wanga (Twitter), journalist.
Musa Okwonga (Twitter), journalist.
Bim Adewunmi (Twitter), journalist.
Reni Eddo-Lodge (Twitter), journalist.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Difficult families

November onwards seems to be the time of year where everyone gets misty eyed and nostalgic about their childhoods, conveniently forgetting that not everyone has a good relationship with their family. Christmas and New Year can be particularly stressful for anyone whose family is abusive, or whose family members struggle with substance abuse, or who have to return to a conservatism they have managed to escape for most of the rest of the year. If you're someone who has a difficult family, for whatever reason, this post is for you.

If you're LGBT and not out to your family, stay safe. If you feel like you want to come out and that your family will accept you, that's great; if you feel this would put you in danger, assess the risk. If you decide it's worth it, more power to you! If you decide against it, that's OK. Some high profile LGBT activists are in favour of everyone coming out no matter what, but it's far more important for you to come out of this season alive. No one important will think less of you if you choose to keep certain information to yourself for the moment.

If you're a survivor of abuse, I hope you can find the kindness and compassion you deserve. Don't let anyone make you ashamed for doing what you need(ed) to do to survive. If you are surrounded by your abusers, my heart goes out to you. I hope you can reach out to people on the outside to keep you safe and grounded. Be extra kind to yourself before and after the main event. You are loved.

If you suffer from seasonal depression and/or the noise and expectations of the season are adversely affecting your mental health, please remember that it's OK to not be OK. This can be a particularly difficult time to be around family, especially if your family doesn't understand your illness. You are not your illness. You are a whole and complete person, and the people around you cannot reduce you to medical words on a diagnosis sheet. Take time to yourself if you need to, whether that's a walk in a nearby green space or just an extra long bathroom break during the meal. Hang in there. The best thing about Christmas is that it's temporary.

If you are spending Christmas with in-laws you don't get on with, I hope you can find a team of people who love you to rally around once the difficult family meal part is over. Even if they can't be with you in person, consider scheduling a group Skype call with friends. I hope you can find the time and space you need to get yourself together.

It is not OK for people around you to comment on your eating habits or food choices. Blogs like Captain Awkward are a treasure trove of advice on dealing with intrusive questions or "concern trolling". The link specifically addresses a person with diabetes who is struggling with insensitive diet talk, but much of the advice is applicable to other health problems or being fat, and Captain Awkward is one of the few places on the Internet where it's worth reading the comments for validation and more advice. If you are fat, bookmark a blog that reminds you you're fabulous. My personal favourite is Arched Eyebrow - while you're there, have a look at her post on being fat around the New Year.

If your relatives have a tendency towards bigotry, the inimitable Franchesca Ramsey has just put out a new video on her YouTube channel about comebacks for your racist relatives. Most of them can also be applied to other flavours of bigotry. Check it out!

As always, this is a discussion. If you like, feel free to share experiences in the comments, and I'd love to hear any advice you have about navigating the choppy waters of complex relationships. Remember, above all, that you are loved. Stay safe, and keep swimming - it's almost done.

On being alone

Winter can seem like a string of family or relationship-oriented holidays, and nearly everything in the media and food we consume and the products we buy reinforces a silent message that celebration is for groups, and if you are not part of a group then You Are Wrong. But so many of us have difficult relationships with families, or have lost one or more members of their family, and have no partner or no way of spending Christmas with their partner (this last particularly applies to long distance, LBGT and interracial couples). Worse, it seems to be starting earlier and earlier, with decorations and piped music wheeled out before shops have even packed away their Hallowe'en stock. It can feel relentless.

The first thing I want to say to those of you spending the winter alone is this: You are not broken. Nothing is wrong with you. I'm sorry if the season makes your situation harder, and if it does, that's not your fault.

I am not alone this Christmas. I am spending it with my family, with whom I have a complex relationship, and I will be addressing this in a later post. But over the past couple of years, I have spent a lot of time alone. Recently I've been taking a lot of comfort from listening to this lovely spoken word poem called "How to Be Alone" by Tanya Davis.

(For anyone reading this who is D/deaf or hard of hearing, the text is reproduced in the video's description box, so click through to the YouTube link.)

It's not a perfect poem. Not everyone will feel comfortable or safe doing the things that she suggests, such as eating out alone or going to a club by yourself. Not everyone can afford to travel to an unfamiliar city. Many of these things are, in any case, difficult or impossible to do around Christmas. Instead of dwelling on or dissecting her advice on specific activities, though, I want to focus on one line:
If you’re happy in your head, then solitude is blessed, and alone is okay.
You might not be happy in your head. That's OK, too. But if you're spending Christmas alone, perhaps you can take the time to work on that. Plan a day full of things you find soothing and pleasant. If you're in an empty house that's usually full, take advantage of it. Buy or make yourself a present. If food treats are your thing, have a few of those ready, and enjoy the silence of the people who might shame you for it. If social media makes you feel sad, stressed, or angry, turn it off. If social media makes you feel fulfilled and connected, enjoy that connection. Consider helping out at a local homeless shelter or visiting some older people who, like you, are alone. Rest as much as you need to. If the weather permits, go for a long walk and enjoy the relative calm. Chill out with yourself for a while and see where it takes you.

My sister has spent a couple of Christmases alone whilst on gap years in Japan. They report that they had hoped they would be able to have a good time by themself, but despite their exciting surroundings and their best efforts, they still found themselves sad and longing for home. Being on the other side of the world from your family and friends is taxing at the best of times, and more so at a time of year you traditionally associate with bonding with your loved ones. Any barrier to spending that time with those supposed to be closest to you can be a tremendous emotional weight, and if you feel it pressing on you, that is natural and fine. Your feelings are real and valid, and you are not broken.

Have you spent Christmas alone? What was it like? How could it be better, or what would you do again?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Imagining a perfect winter

Sometimes, I find myself daydreaming idly about what I'd do in my ideal winter, if money were no object and I was able to bend time and space to my will.

OK, so if I could bend time and space to my will I'd skip winter entirely and cycle between spring, summer and early autumn, because winter is Not My Jam. The point is, we are sort of stuck with it unless we live on the equator. So here's the first of my two Ideal Winters.

Somewhere in the English (or Scottish, or Welsh) countryside, in a place that's quiet but well served by transport, is a massive house. From the outside, it's more of a castle. It has turrets and towers, ivy and wisteria climbing the walls, and it looks hundreds of years old. I'm not sure whether it has a moat - that depends on how grumpy I'm feeling that day. It could be intimidating, but actually it looks pretty welcoming, though we can't quite explain why.

Inside, it's retained many of the antique features that make it beautiful, but otherwise it's modern and comfortable. There are wide corridors and lifts (because some of my friends are wheelchair users, so everything has to be accessible), and there's underfloor heating. There's enough space for everyone to have a little corner to themselves if they need some quiet time, but it's super easy to seek out larger spaces for company. Some spaces are quiet areas, where people can gather and read in companionable silence, or craft, or write, or talk amongst themselves. There are games rooms - console and board, with a huge table for the RPG fans - and rooms out in the wings where parties can happen.

Because this is my dream-house, there's also a room with a piano and a guitar and assorted other instruments. There's a nook at one end that I can close off for private practice or if I need to do some songwriting, but there's enough space for groups to gather and listen to each other play or have a singaround.

There's a few big kitchens with fancy equipment. Vegetarians and vegans get separate kitchens to avoid cross contamination, as do people with allergies and religious dietary requirements. There's a consistent stock of all the basics (whatever that means to you), and scope to make just about anything you can think of. Every so often, there's a huge shared meal in one of the bigger rooms, where everyone who wants to brings what they've made and has a good time together.

Crucially, there are filters on all Internet and incoming broadcasts, meaning that anything to do with Christmas is strictly opt-in. Christmas posts on social media, advertisements, special programmes all flash up a warning, and if you don't feel like engaging with it then you can just press a button and you don't have to see it. You can have as much or as little contact with the outside world as you want.

There are grounds, too. Anyone who wants to get outside for a bit of fresh air can do so. There are quiet green spaces - some tended, some left to grow wild - and gardens for growing food and herbs.

I like to imagine that I would move into this place around mid September each year, and move out again in mid March when the weather is starting to get milder. And all of my friends and loved ones can come too and stay for as long as they like, and spend their winter in good company and a low pressure atmosphere where they're not expected to be or feel anything - just know that there are people around them who understand and who are happy to see them, whatever is going on.

Do you ever imagine something like this? If you came to my imaginary mansion, how would you decorate your space?

Saturday, 20 December 2014

A little winter music

One of my favourite ways to get myself in the mood for anything is to make playlists. This time of year is not a good time to be out, because I have a near-pathological hatred of Christmas pop songs and they're EVERYWHERE. So today, for you, I have a playlist of songs that make me feel wintry. The Spotify link is here: Winter 2014. The YouTube link is here.

This was a good way to find out what makes a wintry song for me. On these playlists you'll find a lot of songs that mention winter or features of its weather in the lyrics or title, and lots of voice and piano music. Much of it is quite gentle, though there are one or two livelier tracks. Some of them aren't explicitly about winter at all, and I just included them because I associate them with this time of year for no particular reason.

Over to you, friends! Which music makes you think of winter? The Spotify playlist is collaborative, so feel free to add your suggestions in there. Alternatively, feel free to comment or tweet me (@theviciouspixie) with suggestions for tracks. You could even make your own and share it - I'll feature my favourites later in the blog. The only rule: no Christmas songs!

Happy listening, and happy playlisting!

(Incidentally, in spite of what this playlist would suggest, I am a massive metalhead. Who wants a metal edition?)


As I type, it's five days before Christmas. Everyone's in hard-sell, forced jollity mode. There's a hum of anticipation in the air, with an undercurrent of panic as everyone wonders whether anything will get done on time. On social media, everyone's counting the days.

Lots of people love Christmas, and the culture I and many other English speakers live in make it a pretty big deal. For those of us who find Christmas a difficult time of year, however, it can be hard to escape. It can feel like everyone else is happy and excited except for us, and that we're wrong or broken for not acting as cheerful as the people around us. Some even accuse us of ruining their fun.

There are all kinds of reasons not to enjoy Christmas. Some of us have difficult or non-existent relationships with our families. Some are recovering from bereavement. Some might be legitimately angry that our religions are not treated with equal respect, or feel that we are further marginalised at this time of year. Some spend the season having to hide who we are out of fear of rejection. For anyone these things apply to, Christmas is less about celebrating and more about surviving.

It's easy to feel bitter about these things. I do, too. So I've made this blog for us. It's not anti-festivity. It's not hating on the season. It's just a place where we club together and help each other get through. I will post nice things - short stories, music, self care tips and similar - and I invite anyone reading this to submit suggestions or guest posts.

We're halfway out of the dark, friends. We got this.